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Six authors bring to life overlapping stories of patricians and slaves, warriors and politicians, villains and heroes who cross each others' path during Pompeii's fiery end.
Caught in the deadly world of the Renaissance's most notorious family, three outsiders must decide if they will flee the dangerous dream of power.
The Borgia family begins its legendary rise, chronicled by an innocent girl who finds herself drawn into their dangerous web.
The lives of an ambitious soldier, a patrician heiress and a future emperor fatefully intersect.
The Year of Four Emperors - and four very different women struggling to survive
A brilliant and paranoid Emperor, a wary and passionate slave girl – who will survive?

Ave Historia: An irreverent look at historical fiction today: books trends, historical tidbits, and random tangents

The Inevitable Top Ten List

January 2, 2012

Tags: bernard cornwell, death of kings, second duchess, elizabeth loupas, dresden files, jim butcher, song of the nile, stephanie dray, the last queen, c.w. gortner, major pettigrew's last stand, helen simonson, dance with dragons, george r.r. martin, 11/22/63, stephen king, mr rosenblum dreams in english, natasha solomons, kitchen confidential, anthony bourdain, top ten list

Apparently a federal mandate was handed down from the White House, or possibly the Borg, to all book bloggers at the turn of the New Year: You must post a “Top Ten Books I Read in 2011” blog post, or you will be assimilated. Surrender immediately. Resistance is futile.

Who am I to resist Obama, or the Borg Queen? Here's my Top Ten List of books I've read this year (though some were published far previous to 2011). More original post coming next week, assuming I haven't been assimilated.

Best Books I Read In 2011, In No Particular Order

1.“Death of Kings” by Bernard Cornwell
Ah, the master himself with his latest installment in the Saxon Stories, a bloody and exuberant tale starring acerbic warrior hero Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Cornwell provides his usual stream of dry one-liners, battlefield heroics, and gorgeous writing – all wrapped up in one lovely package with a hero so hunky that I would time-travel back to the Dark Ages, risking an existence of dismemberment, violence, and no deodorant, for a single chance to meet him in person.

2.“The Second Duchess” by Elizabeth Loupas
The best debut I've read in a long time: a clever and level-headed Austrian princess newly married to the same Duke of Ferrara who stars in the famous Browning poem. Cautiously, the new duchess investigates the mysterious death of her predecessor while negotiating the snakepit of Renaissance politics and the attentions of her sometimes attractive, sometimes terrifying new husband. Deliciously twisty plotting, sensuous prose, and unforgettable characters.

3.“The Last Queen” by C.W. Gortner
A much sadder historical fiction read which I nevertheless devoured in a single hot summer day. The life of Juana of Castile makes for gut-wrenching reading as she travels from exuberant young princess to the woman who will be walled up and unfairly dismissed by history as a madwoman, but it's like watching a car wreck – you can't look away for a minute. Read with a large plate of Spanish tapas and a glass of sangria for consolation, preferably under the loggias of the Alhambra palace where Juana grew up.

4.“Ghost Story” by Jim Butcher
Just to prove that I don't only read historical fiction. Jim Butcher's urban fantasy series about a lanky wise-cracking wizard operating in modern-day Chicago is as addictive as crack. This one is no exception. Harry Dresden, wizard and wise-ass, is one of the best fictional heroes around – and this is one of the few books I can think of where the narrator spends pretty much the whole book dead.

5.“Song of the Nile” by Stephanie Dray
I love an unabashedly ambitious heroine, and Dray's Selene really fills the ticket – Cleopatra's intelligent daughter who does her best to claw, scheme, and manipulate the Emperor of Rome into giving back her birthright of the throne of Egypt. If only the Emperor of Rome weren't a first-class creep who wants waaaaaay more than a girl should reasonably have to give up in pursuit of power. Sequel to “Lily of the Nile,” and altogether a darker, harder, more grown-up read.

6.“Major Pettigrew's Last Stand” by Helen Simonson
A gem – if Masterpiece Theatre doesn't snap this book up for a movie remake starring Derek Jacobi, it would be a crime. A gentle but hysterically funny romance about a reticent English widower who finds himself, to his considerable inconvenience, falling in love with a charming Pakistani widow. Humorous, understanding, and sweet – and how lovely to see a passionate romance between a Romeo of sixty-eight and a Juliet of fifty-eight. As if only the young and beautiful are entitled to star in great love stories.

7.“Dance With Dragons” by George R.R. Martin
The long and not very patiently awaited installment in Martin's iconic and massive “Song of Ice and Fire” series. I won't bother recapping the plot of this thousand-page doorstopper, since your screen would explode, but it was worth every hour of sleep I lost over it.

8.“11/22/63” by Stephen King
Another doorstopper on the top of the New York Times Bestseller list, and worth every penny of the doctor's bills you will incur for the wrist strain that settled in after hours of holding this brick up close enough to read. A teacher in 2011 finds a mysterious portal that takes him back to 1958 – and he decides to stick around and see if he can't prevent the Kennedy assassination from happening. The answer may surprise you – Stephen King has not one whit lost his touch for horror, creativity, and poignancy, sometimes all in the same sentence.

9.“Mr. Rosenblum Dreams In English” by Natasha Solomons
Middle-aged Jack Rosenblum is a German Jew who escaped Nazi Germany by moving his family to England - and for twenty years, Jack has devoted himself to becoming the perfect English gentleman. He has the tweed suits from Harrods, the pipe and the Jaguar, but one thing eludes him: membership to a golf club. When every good golf club rejects Jack (no Jews allowed! Germany certainly didn't corner the market on anti-Semitism) Jack decides with grandeur that he will build his own golf course. What a bad idea – and what a funny, moving, satisfying book about the results.

10.“Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain
How to classify this book: Memoir? Expose? Humor? Its author is easier to pin down: a hard-drinking, hard-swearing, hard-living executive chef (and now Travel Channel star) who can't write a sentence without being funny, poignant, or offensive, often simultaneously. Bourdain's macho testosteronal voice would be unbearable if he didn't make just as much fun of himself as he does of everyone else. I can't walk into a restaurant now without wondering if the crew making my food is the kind of swaggering foul-mouthed batch of borderline psychos who are depicted so vividly in the pages here.

So there it is – my top ten list, along with everyone else's. Now please, Mr. President or Ms. Borg Queen, can I pretty please go back to my book and not be assimilated?

Weekend Read: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

July 8, 2011

Tags: weekend read, george r.r. martin, a song of ice and fire, game of thrones, a dance of dragons

Winter is coming, and so at last is the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s massive fantasy series, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” It’s been a gap of more than five years, a wait that has made many of his fans testy, but this Tuesday the wait is over and “A Dance of Dragons” hits the streets. It’s supposed to be a brick of a book, clocking in with eleven storylines, sixteen viewpoints, and over a thousand pages. To prepare yourself, hole up this weekend with the previous four books and prepare to immerse yourself in the world Martin has created. That’s certainly what I’m going to do. You want some reading for the weekend? Here’s the mother of all weekend reads.

Hard to say what it’s about, really. I could talk for hours, and only be done with half the plotlines. Suffice it to say that there’s a medieval throne in a country kind of like England; some people want the throne and others try to prevent them from getting it and they all go to war, while the common folk just keep their heads down and all the while a darker threat is looming in the north, which is the land of things that go bump in the night. Politics, murder, war, love, battle, rape, poison, backstabbing, scheming, treachery – these books have it all.

Hate fantasy? “A Song of Ice and Fire” is fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy. Martin lays on the magic with a light touch; he relies on character and plot to move the story along rather than The Force or any magic ring. If one of his characters is strung up from a tree (ahem, George, you left her there at the end of the Book 4 and you’d better resolve it quick because I don’t want to leave her hanging there another half-decade while you write Book 5) then she’ll have to get down with wits, strength, or good old-fashioned luck because no magical gizmo is going to show up and save her in deus ex machina fashion. There’s magic in these books but it’s unpredictable, chancy, dangerous, and rare – just like any other force of nature.

Hate fantasy and love historical fiction? No problem. Sly references to real history abound. There’s a war between two families called the Starks and the Lannisters – Yorks and Lancasters, anybody? There’s a deposed royal family living in exile across the water – the deposed Stuarts, anybody? There’s a womanizing drunk of a king and his beautiful but ambitious blond wife; check and check for Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. The continent is England-shaped, albeit much larger, and there’s even a massive ice wall running through the top just like Hadrian’s Wall dividing England and Scotland. There’s a loyal lord who loses a head much like Richard Duke of York, and another lord who turns traitor much like the lord who betrayed Richard II at the Battle of Bosworth. “A Song of Ice and Fire” is kind of like the Wars of the Roses, only with colder winters and a dragon or three.

If you’re daunted by the sheer size of the books, which admittedly are doorstoppers, start with the TV series. HBO gave the first book, “Game of Thrones,” the full treatment: vast budget, huge cast, gorgeous costumes, stunning sets, stirring music, and expert CGI. That’ll take you through the first book, and then you’ll be stuck like the rest of us, waiting for Season 2 to come out in ten months. At least next Tuesday the next book comes out.

It might tide me over.